All posts by Chelsea Schmitt

Q&A: When it comes to women, “Realism” is often wrong

I’m writing a story set in the Victorian era, something I have done a lot of research on, and my female character (a teenager) is a skilled fencer. I have been told that this is ‘unrealistic’ despite research telling me noble women would have actually been ENCOURAGED to fence, as fencing was seen as graceful. I was going to have her get into a duel but I’m worried readers aren’t going to believe woman could fence back then and impose even more restrictions than were in place at the time.

So, with fiction, you can essentially normalize whatever you want. You’re not limited a very narrow view of someone else’s reality. You create the reality your readers experience. You shape the world to your liking. You have that control, you have that power, and, when you get good at crafting new realities, your readership won’t question it because you never gave them the opportunity. However, the trick with normalization is understanding there needs to be more than one. You need many characters from in a multitude of age groups in order to normalize a behavior pattern in a setting.

Never forget, you are the creator and they are the consumer. The consumer doesn’t dictate what the creator creates. A well-written story will always find a home, even one filled with uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. Be confident that you’ll find yours.

Remember, perception of history doesn’t outweigh real history except when we ignore the real history’s existence. The fact women were encouraged to fence as they were encouraged to participate in other sports like tennis for the benefit of their health doesn’t outweigh the sexism which existed in Victorian England. It also doesn’t reject women’s participation in sports as being seen as secondary to men’s. Their participation treated as less “legitimate”, less serious, and entirely hobbyist. Which is not so different from how women’s professional sports are treated today.

The trouble with the presentation of many female characters who fight (and this has been normalized) is that they’re the only one. They’re the trailblazer, the only one who fights, who earns her stripes by playing with the big male dogs, who is different from other women. This gives them the position of being special and unique. However, by being different from other woman in such a big way, we cut the setting off from normalizing female participation and the concept of a woman fighting is treated as abnormal. A single outlier is not normalization, and isn’t really proving anything.  In fact, the treatment of a female fighter as being different, unique, and special due to her gender throws the violence and combat ball squarely into the male court. By normalizing violence as the domain of men, these female characters are framed as infringing on spaces inherently male rather than just culturally male. This treatment of sex and gender ends up normalizing the very sexist stereotypes and cultural mores that the narrative is trying to combat.  The treatment posits that men are inherently and naturally better at combat than women because violence is male, and the truth that combat is a skill you practice and work at in order to be good gets lost.

Women have always fought. You’ll find at least two women in just about every martial arts class, and probably more. There will be older women and younger women, the women who threw off society’s rules to completely embrace their martial calling, the women who didn’t, the women who are there just for that bit of added grace, the ones who are there because their mother or father made them, the ones who love it, the ones who aren’t really interested in fencing. They’re just crushing on the salle’s fencing instructor or taking the opportunity to go husband hunting among the available gentry. You need lots of female characters with varying opinions on the subject and with their own reasons for engaging in the sport. The primary opponents for a female fencer are going to be other female fencers, and that’s also who she’ll be training with; even if the master is a man. Where women dueling women is acceptable, women dueling men will be socially frowned upon. This doesn’t mean a woman can’t duel a man on equal terms, they can. However, the social and societal consequences for breaking with tradition are much more severe.

This is where the sexism the audience has been trained to expect leaks back in. The mental jump is in the statement: “it is socially frowned upon for women to do X” and the logic then  becomes “women can’t do X!” because we don’t talk about the ones who challenged social mores. There’s the assumption, and then there’s the reality. Audiences demanding realism often overfocus on their assumptions, rather than what is real. Fiction is a poor substitute for the real world, which is often much more complicated. The reality is women’s fencing as a codified sport has been thriving for over a century. Women have been fencing and fighting for much longer than that. Women learned and practiced self-defense in Victorian England, there were women who did fight in live duels against other women, and there were those who participated in the sport purely as a means of exercise.

Women didn’t duel in Victorian England, they say? We have actual historical events of women dueling topless, and not for the entertainment of male or female spectators. No, they dueled topless to avoid infection and to keep cloth from going into the wound. In this particular instance, the countess and the princess were dueling over floral arrangements for an upcoming musical exhibition.

The reasons your characters have for dueling could be really, really out there. Violence over floral arrangements may not make sense to us, but it did to them. Humans can be really out there, and history isn’t a sham collection of men doing everything while women stayed home. History is littered with badass women from all over the world doing crazy things. I wouldn’t even say that a woman dueling a man in Victorian England would actually be all that out there because women did, what would be unrealistic is there being no consequences (societal or otherwise) for the act. There were certainly women who openly flouted convention. Novelist George Eliot is one example. Female prize fighter and all around bare knuckle boxing champion, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes is another.

However, culture involves more than one.

If you want to portray an attitude as normal, you need to have your characters treat the attitude like it’s normal and back that up with a robust mixed gender cast. Women are drawn to violence in the same way men are, and female members of the aristocracy certainly did duel each other. There were articles written on the subject of how fencing is good for women’s health.

So, should you fear detractors? No, you shouldn’t.

Don’t give them power over your work. Women have been carving out their place in the world of professional sports and on the battlefield for a long, long time. The tragedy is that our culture at large pretends they don’t exist in order to uphold the sexist mores underpinning our society. Remember, women make up half of the human race and half of every society. Honestly, read this article. The Boy’s Club may be societally acceptable, but it’s actually unrealistic.

So, if you want normal, jam your work full of female fencers of every age. Main characters, secondary characters, side characters, and cameos. Female friends, female rivals, female mentors, female teachers, female assistants, female family members, female characters who just don’t understand, female characters of every stripe imaginable. Women who fence, women who don’t, women who look down their nose at it, women who think its unseemly, women who long to be taken more seriously, and the women who just don’t care what society thinks. Those do it anyway. All these types of women have existed.

You’ll always find detractors, but the answer is easy.

Do it anyway.

-Michi

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Writing Gangs

We got a few questions about gangs versus organized crime, and what the difference is. So, I figured we’d do a follow up post about gangs. (The Wiki article about gangs rolls organized crime in with them which is… not accurate, they’re organized, yes, but different beasts.)

The main difference between gangs and organized crime is time. If the street gang survives, it grows up to become organized crime. They’re the Lost Boys in the interim stages before they grow up to become the Pirates. The gang is the proto phase of organized crime, the beginnings of the group before it’s become entrenched. Most Mafia/Mobs do find their original roots in street gangs before they grew up into professional enterprises. The main difference between the Mob and the Gang is the Mob has had time grow, develop, and learn from previous experiences.

The way to think about “organized crime” like the Triad, the American Mafias, the Yakuza, and others like is that they’re a criminal enterprise. They’re a business, and this is where Russian organized crime meets up with the Mafias. The heads of these organizations are like CEOs, and they function almost exactly like any other corporation except their working outside the law in human trafficking, drugs, etc. This includes stealing fashion designs and using sweatshop labor to sell cheap knock offs as an industry, which is something the Triad does. “Organized crime” is money moving to the tune of billions as international business versus the most enterprising of the street gangs which may own, maybe, a city.

Easy difference, the Black Mafia family sells drugs. The Cartels produce drugs, and sell them, and they sometimes contract out to street/motorcycle gangs. This is the pharmaceutical company versus your local pharmacy versus a single location Mom & Pop shop. The street gang is Mom & Pop. The older well-established gangs that’ve been around for forty to fifty years are the Rite-Aids. The Triad are Bayer. Given time, and assuming they survive to adulthood, the gang can hit the big time and own some place like Las Vegas before moving on to bigger and better. That takes time though, and they’ve got to grow up first. There are quite a few gangs moving toward, if they haven’t already become, organized criminal enterprises. The Bloods and the Crips are close, the Black Mafia, and MS13 is aggressively pursuing its transition into criminal enterprise. It might be tempting to lean toward the cartels or mafias for the sense of legitimacy they bring to the narrative, not to mention the romantic relationship some groups have with fiction.

The Gang is rougher, but much more suited to any narrative involving teens and about growing up. Let’s face it, the gang is the angry teenage phase of organized crime. They’re the dark side of found families, they’re messier, and they will stress characters with themes of brotherhood/sisterhood, respect, loyalty, co-dependency, and the meaning of family in ways you won’t get from an organized businesses because they weed that shit out. They don’t have time for your angst. The Gang, though? They thrive on emotional narratives about brutality, trauma, broken bonds, and shattered friendships. They’re about getting in over your head from the word go; before you ever learned how to swim and long before you’re ever given the chance.

The Lost Boys

Gangs form in marginalized communities that are not protected by the bureaucracy of the ruling government. Their purpose, their beginning purpose, is to protect. Their originating goal is to provide security and safety to their communities, to protect them from outsiders, and they recruit on that honorable ideal. Any community which is treated as “Other” runs the risk of creating not one gang but multiples. The behavior and culture of the gang is dependent on the culture of its participants, before the gang develops a culture of its own, their ideals, their beliefs, their views come fractured through the eyes of disenfranchised youth. They combine with a teenager’s volatile emotions and impulsivity.

The main draw of the gangs is sense of family they offer, the brotherhood. They primarily exert influence on young, disaffected, lonely neglected youth with absentee parents. In plain terms, they hunt up Latch Keys. These can be impoverished children from single-parent households whose older family members work so hard to put food on the table they can’t be there, the ones from white-collar households in a similar boat, those whose parents genuinely don’t care, those from abusive homes, and came out of a similar life. The key theme is the offer of stability, purpose, guidance, and open to influence by the gang. The gang offers the child or teen the love, attention, and guidance they crave, but at a price.

You know all those tell-tale warnings you got about peer-pressure? This is peer-pressure reworked into targeted social engineering.

A character’s initiation into a gang is an act of violence. Sometimes, it’s a beating. Sometimes, it’s a murder. Sometimes, the initiated murderer is thirteen years old. And, yes, the street gang is where you’ll find that sixteen year old hitman who was recruited out of elementary school and started running drugs at nine or ten years old. They’re not “professional” in the conventional sense, but they go out to perform hits and the resulting collateral damage is often very messy.

There’s more emotional depth here than “just business”. Leaving the gang is a betrayal of the brotherhood, betrayal of the family. Killing can be seen as retribution, to claim turf, get respect, exert authority, or protect from invaders.

A major theme for gang characters is exerting their identity through violence, establishing themselves as adults, and lashing out at cultures/societies/institutions that they feel have rejected/failed them.

They’ve turned to the only figures in their lives they feel understand them, the older members of their gang. The relationship between gang members is elder sibling and younger sibling rather than the patron-client, mentor/student, parent/child relationships you’d find in gangs with organized crime.

If you want to learn more about child recruitment and culture in gangs, I highly recommend reading Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur.

The Lord of the Flies

The sort of “send a message” brutality you get out gangs, the behavior, the emotion, and the thematic resonance they have with coming of age stories is, I think, what most of our followers are really asking for whenever they ask about the Mob. It’s worth exploring the romantic aspects of the gang, what they offer, and why they so easily lure young people in.

This is a writing advice blog. I’m going to take this last part to talk about how you can use gangs in your narratives. First…

To write crime, you must understand crime.

Understanding crime requires understanding the culture which spawns the crimes, the society, and the laws of the world your character exists in. You can’t break a rule if you don’t understand the rules. Right? If your reader doesn’t understand the rules of your setting, they won’t understand the impact of your character breaking with them.

Spend as much time on your lawfuls as your chaotics, if not more.

To write the gang, you must understand the necessity and purpose of the gang.

You need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. The pressures of their world, the loneliness of it, and the desire to have someone, anyone, who understands them. The intoxicating effect of fear, how inflicting fear makes you feel powerful, and the need to exert control in an overwhelming world where your environment is wildly spinning out of your grasp.

If you want to write a character who exists in the criminal underworld, and never spent any time looking at the criminals in question then you will come up short. I understand that it’s not a comfortable subject to research.

Romanticization station…

“The Gang” as a narrative trope lacks the prestige and legitimacy brought by more established organizations such as “The Mafia”. With youth, however, comes flexibility. Rogues living outside the system, renegades struggling to make it in a world overwhelmingly weighted against them, Band of Brothers, Rebel Without A Cause, Protect the Family, Paint the Town Red, and all your James Dean tropes can be applied to and claimed by gang members.

For your narrative, it’s always worth looking at the romanticized aspects of gang life because those tropes are often embraced and used as justifications by the gang members themselves. They’re also good recruiting tools.

With youth comes opportunity…

Where the greater adult world won’t take an underage character seriously, the gang will. Where a group like the American Mafia will turn up their nose at a sixteen year old hitman because they’ve already got a kid who acted as a courier, parked their cars, and went into the military to get the skills they needed, the gang will give the sixteen year old the chance to prove themselves and couch the hit as an opportunity for advancement.

They also see murder as a means of binding the gang member to the gang, even incarceration is a means of binding them tighter into the family. They care a little less about the character getting pinched. They might expect it. After all, everyone mucks things up that first time and most gang members have felt the weight of the juvenile justice system. Better to make the big mistakes while you’re still young so you can do better next time. Well, you can do better if you survive on the inside.

I got harder, I got smarter in the nick of time…

Take a hard look at your character, their motivations, their experiences, and how those resulted in the actions they’ve taken. They’re in a situation rife with manipulation and betrayal, where they’ll be pressured to take actions they may not feel comfortable with. Caught in an inevitable cycle of escalation where the violence they commit in the name of their brotherhood/sisterhood becomes more and more brutal, where they need to do more and more to prove themselves, are motivated to do so by advancing up the chain of command. Breaking this cycle is difficult.

In conclusion:

I’ve gone on long enough, and this post got longer than I intended. Gangs are a subject you can write whole books on and not even scratch the surface of. We’re probably not done with this subject, but if you want a teen criminal then the likelihood is that they’re in or have been involved in or, at least, aware of their local gangs to varying degrees. Your narrative should always have more than one, some run by kids, some run by older teens, some run by adults, and so on. You want to research the history of gangs, the current famous gangs that exist, and so on. The answers won’t always be easy or easily digestible. They’re not quick.

So, food for thought.

-Michi

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Q&A: Bloodsport Isn’t Soldiering, It’s Entertainment

When it comes to child soldiers, how realistic do you think the “Careers” kids are in The Hunger Games and the participants as a whole? Honestly, I think they suffer from the “writing children like mini adults” problem that most bad writing has. That, and it ignores emotion and trauma. They react and fight like emotionless drones or trained fully adult soldiers instead of scared, bumbling children.

I want you to understand something exceedingly crucial before we get into this. Starke and I both technically qualify as Careers. I started doing martial arts when I was five years old, I knew how to kill another human being when I was twelve, I could perform disarms when I was fourteen, and before I was eighteen I was working to teach other kids the same age as myself when I started.  Starke is an Eagle Scout, and that should really say it all.

What I am essentially telling you is that I grew up around other kids, children to teens and young adults who spent their life doing martial arts, some of whom competed on a professional, national to worldwide competitive level and in the care of adults who grew up doing martial arts, some of whom competed on a worldwide competitive level. I’ve seen all sorts of kids do all sorts of things, and what a child can do is heavily dependent on the child we’re talking about. Yes, the average child might be bumbling, but the lifer? The one picked out early and heavily trained? Like these kids? Like Jade Xu? Ernie Reyes Jr? Jet Li? Then, there’s the seven year olds in Thailand who compete in Muay Thai bouts. There’s these kids. And these kids.  And these kids.

Did you know this is a worldwide industry that utilizes children’s performance art for the entertainment of the masses? You just participated in it by watching these videos.

Congratulations.

If there’s an aspect of The Hunger Games that’s incredibly unrealistic, it’s the fact that the novel ignores all of the above. This is not some far flung future, this is now, and its a billion dollar industry worldwide. When you’re looking at a character who is a Career, this is what you should be thinking of. We call this phenomenon: sports.

The Hunger Games is YA, which provides a mistaken impression that kids wouldn’t be able to compete in arena style gladiator death matches. That’s untrue. They already do. The fights aren’t to the death, for the most part, because adults intervene but the ability is there. Children are actually a lot better at bloodsport when pitted against other children than The Hunger Games gives them credit for. You’ve seen child athletes. Add the fact that it’s mentally easier for children to kill because the concept of death and the permanence of it doesn’t really register for them, you have a situation where bloodsport games would be very easy. Condition them an environment where this type of killing is okay, even acceptable, where they’re rewarded for their success, and they’ll be perfectly happy to keep at it. They’ll even be perfectly sane and mentally well-adjusted without any abuse or forcing necessary.

This is the one criticism I’m going to really level at The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games does not understand the mentality of violence, specifically the mentality behind bloodsport, and what draws people to it both as participants and as a form of entertainment. The novel really can’t grasp what draws people to it, what makes bloodsport a billion dollar industry, and why someone would want to participate. The Careers are gladiators, they’re not child soldiers. They’re professional athletes in the Olympic level category, which is the sort of competition they’re training for. They won’t have the same hangups an ordinary child would in regards to violence because this event is not just what they trained their whole lives for, but the competition they competed fiercely to gain access to.

They’re not going to have the kind of trauma you might expect because they’ve spent their lives preparing for this. We’re talking someone age sixteen and seventeen who has been training for around twelve to thirteen years.

What should really disturb you about gladiators is they’re entertainers. They exemplify the commodification of violence and of human beings as vehicles of violence for entertainment. They’re putting on a show, putting on a spectacle, and, yes, there may be death at the end of the experience but that’s part of the experience. The crowd came to watch the bloodsport for the enjoyment of it, and your success in the arena is decided by how well you can put on that show. How well you entertain the audience while you beat the living shit out of someone else. It’s disingenuous to say one would ever need to force people to watch bloodsport because they don’t, they don’t need to force them to participate either. Humanity’s appetite for violence as entertainment is about as old as humanity, and its a cornerstone in many cultures around the world.

The Careers are not child soldiers, which is a very specific term identifying very specific circumstances. They don’t fall under that category. They’re children raised to violence. From a mental outlook perspective, they should have more in common with Olympic athletes, competitive martial artists, and those children in the real world who are raised for bloodsport. You want to find a decent comparison to a “Career” type character, you’re going to be looking at the kids participating in competitive sports martial arts.

Twelve year olds who participate in scheduled Muay Thai bouts against other twelve year olds for the enjoyment of the masses do exist. In Thailand, they participate as young as seven. Olympic boxers, Olympic athletes competing in Judo, Taekwondo, Fencing, Greco-Roman Wrestling, Free-Style Wrestling, you’ll find most of these combatants were training from a young age and competing from a young age in appropriate age group categories in order to get their foot in the door. Martial artists like Jackie Chan and Jet Li technically qualify under the Career title. Jet Li won his first wushu changquan champion when he was fourteen years old. This is before we get into backyard wrestling, where we have kids imitating what they see on the TV on friends or family members in their own homes. However, none of these children are child soldiers.  Child soldiers aren’t really trained, they’re children stolen from their families, brainwashed, and hopped up on drugs then sent out to kill. They’re competitive athletes which, when you really stop and think about it, is another can of worms all on its own.

What you’re missing about these kids in this specific mold is the part where they’re professional athletes, they’re not soldiers. Soldier is the wrong skillset for a gladiator. It’s a good starting skill set, but you need more than that in order to succeed in the entertainment industry. What’s easy to forget when you’re looking at novels like The Hunger Games is we already have a billion dollar industry in bloodsport, and watching humans beat up other humans for audiences everywhere is, at this point, a staple in entertainment. Careers are gladiators, they’re professional athletes, and that’s pretty much where they land on the spectrum. They’re somewhere in the collegiate to Olympic levels of serious with a lowball at Friday Night Lights.

Have you ever spent much time around professional athletes? If they’re good at what they do, they have the potential to be worth a lot of money. If they’re at the top of their game, they know it. They’ve beaten out a lot of people to get where they are, and, in the case of bloodsport athletes, those beatings are literal. No, they don’t kill anyone but the reasoning behind that is there’s no money in it. There’s a lot of resources invested in training a gladiator and, whether they’re successful or not, you can make your money back off them over the course of their career. Even in the Roman arenas, the professional gladiators rarely died. They had fans, they were worth a lot of money, and it’s better to have them around to fight next weekend than bury them.

The Hunger Games has the same problem a lot of YA has which is formula. The Careers aren’t emotionless drones, they’re the popular kids in your high school cafeteria. They’re the jocks and the cheerleaders with a touch more homicide rather than the ones who can never show up to any functions or hang out with friends because they’re training from six to eight and then three thirty to eight with eight hours left in the middle of the day for school.

The problem with this set up is that professional athletes and kids training to become professional athletes aren’t “normal” kids. The Best is a competition, the closer you get to that pinnacle the rougher the competition gets. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to put in the effort. To be the best requires a lot of work, a lot of dedication, a lot of sacrifice. You can throw in blood, sweat, and tears but that still won’t be enough. Talent can pave your way, but it isn’t enough to be a winner. You have to be all in, you’ve got to want it, and be willing to sacrifice everything to win.

The formula for The Hunger Games is wrong because you need to be using the formula from your average sports film about the kid trying to make it big. The kids in the new Karate Kid movie with Jackie Chan, for example. That’s the expected level of competency you’d be getting out of a thirteen year old training for high level sports competition. You ever gone ahead and watched high level gymnastics? That shit is fierce, and the behind the scenes competition for top spots on national teams is about as fierce. This is before we get to other countries like China where the prospective child candidates are scouted early and taken into custody of the state to be trained.

The Careers are gladiators, which means (under normal circumstances) they’d be trained to be one part killing machine, one part actor, and one part stuntman. The training part here is key, and that’s what would keep them emotionally and physically stable. Gladiators are showmen. They’re bloodsport, and bloodsport is honest-to-god entertainment. This is an industry which makes billions every single year worldwide, and there are kids the same age as the Careers preparing for their debut UFC bouts out there right now in the United States.

Reality TV isn’t real, it’s entertainment. The WWE is entertainment some people do believe is real. Bloodsport is real… ish, but to be successful at it you need to be more than just good at fighting. Fighting another human being for the enjoyment of the masses is a different skill set. Gladiators are the one place where I’ll say, yes, the flashy additions to their fighting style suits a real purpose. They can kill their opponent or beat them to a bloody pulp and they’ll look good doing it. With someone who is very good, you’ll find yourself enjoying the bout even when you didn’t want to.

When we’re talking about “Careers”, we aren’t discussing kids most middle class Americans would consider “normal” teenagers, not by any stretch of the imagination. They’re trained for a very specific utility, and working the arena is their job. They’re like every other sort of young professional from child models to child actors.

The key component to understand with professional bloodsport is poverty.  Like professional sports, this is a route people choose when they have limited options. They often don’t come from privileged backgrounds, and for most of these kids in the real world this is a way out. There aren’t better options for them to choose, and by the point they’re seventeen or eighteen they wouldn’t choose another path. They fought for this, they’re invested in this, and this part of their life is an important aspect of who they are. However, to really delve into the dystopic aspect of this part of society we’d end up in Lord of the Flies territory.

A career is a job. You can take a child of five and train them for eleven to twelve years, by the time they’re sixteen to seventeen they’d be perfectly capable of doing much more than we see from the Careers in The Hunger Games. In fact, the entire problem with the Careers approach to the Hunger Games is that they don’t treat it like a job. We have hyper specialized characters who’ve trained their whole lives to compete in bloodsport, perform, and win the heart of the crowd. They’d be capable of taking someone like Katniss, who was competent in their own right but not prepared for the Games, and incorporate them into their performance. Like in any good reality TV show, you use your actor plants to stoke drama and create entertainment. There’s a real aspect to preliminaries in sports where you use them as an opportunity to size up the competition, which is why you should always be carrying around more than one routine.

In the Roman arena, the thumbs up symbolized the gladiator performing well enough to kill their opponent. The thumbs down indicated they hadn’t performed well enough. The right to kill another warrior was one that had to be earned, and this was difficult to do. These rules were put into place because gladiators are valuable commodities, they are worth more alive than they are dead. At least, until they reach the point where they’re no longer useful.

Looking at a Career would be similar to the feelings inspired when you look at a gif with some martial artist performing martial arts that seem to be outside the laws of nature. Whether that’s climbing up a willing partner to use their legs in a scissor to bring them swinging to the ground or a gun disarm that involves kicking someone’s legs out from under them from a kneeling position. It’s the Clarke quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This was the aspect of the Roman arena that was so demoralizing. You can’t figure out how they did what they just did, they seem so incredibly superior, and now your entire culture is ripped apart into bits for the titillation and tantalization of the masses, but goddamn if some part of you doesn’t enjoy it. (See: the Roman treatment of Sparta.)

The trick to understanding any violence is understanding the kind of training they receive, the purpose of the role they’re preparing to serve. All violence is not the same.

If you’ve never spent any time around children who participate in high end sports or martial arts, you’re not really fit to judge what they are and aren’t capable of. The truth is that children are much more capable than you might think, especially when you train and prepare them for what they’re going to experience. There’s an assumption they’ve suffered abuse, be it mental, emotional, or physical, but that’s actually unlikely. You get more out of a willing participant than you do from one that’s been forced, and bloodsport has never in human history had a shortage of individuals willing to sign up. Modern bloodsport is all volunteers, and many of them began training as children in one form or another.

We can debate the nature of traumatized children, how young is too young, but it is important to remember that in sports like gymnastics you’re often looking at children who are sixteen to eighteen years old. These kids train from four in the morning to eight in the evening, and, for the high fliers, their entire education is probably home schooled. Ballet requires a lifetime of preparation in order to achieve professional status. We have child actors. And, of course, there are the Muay Thai kids I mentioned earlier. They get into the ring and give each other injuries that make their brains look like they’ve been in car accidents. But, if you ask them, most would be happy to keep doing it. The rewards outweigh everything else.

Don’t think of these kids as props. They’re very real, and they have very real desires, real wants, and real goals. You can’t become good at something if you don’t love it.  If you want to write these kinds of characters, you need to try thinking from the perspective of the kids who actually want to be there. Who want to do this. Who looked at the glamour, and the blood, and the cheers of the crowd, and said, “YES! I WANT TO BE THAT!” Not as a passing fancy, not in a way that discounts their experiences or chides them for being childish or naive, but the ones who understood what they were getting into. The ones who were raised in the environment and never wanted anything else, and nothing anyone can offer will ever make them feel quite as good. The harder one works to be good at something, the more invested they become. You can be proud of your skill, how hard you worked, and how you struggled without being proud of your ability to kill. This is who they are.

You can cringe from it, you can be terrified by it, you can feel sorry for them, but while you’re doing all that pearl clutching you can’t write genuine stories about their experiences. You can’t write them if you don’t understand. At best, your writing is patronizing. At worst, it ignores the real dark side of their experiences, their struggles, their sacrifices, and the cost of their dream. You also ignore the good that comes from their actions, like the Muay Thai children who are so successful in the ring they can buy their parents houses, the family bonding with parents and siblings who also fight. The friendships, the families, the community, the support, and what its like to be around people who want the same as you. The ones who truly understand your experiences.

Honestly, if you want to be doing anything gladiator, you need to be looking at sports and the influence sports has on our culture. If you want to discuss the evils of bloodsport or violence as entertainment, then you need to understand the cultures we’re talking about. You need to grasp why people like it in the first place, what draws them to watching children beat the shit out of each other, and why they enjoy it without just outright initially dismissing them as psychos. You also need to grasp performance and sports martial arts as their own skill set, with one not completely rejecting your ability to kill people.

In those videos, you’re watching some kids who are twelve and thirteen years old with enough physical control to perform the same sort of stunt fighting you see in a Hollywood film. That’s forgetting Ernie Reyes Jr, who could do the same when he was about five.

What I’m saying is: The Hunger Games doesn’t give children enough credit.

-Michi

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Q&A: Reject Cynicism. Inner Strength is about Courage

Thoughts on the gentle and compassionate character that is perceived as weak but has “inner strength”? What is your personal definition of inner strength in the context of this archetype, and would it actually be beneficial in a semi-realistic setting? And how would you go about deconstructing, and subsequently reconstructing it? I hate cynical endings that show kindness is meaningless or a hindrance, I was wondering if I could subvert such a message without eyeroll-ness using such a character.

Coming out with the hard questions, huh?

The truth is there is no right way to write this type of character because “inner strength” isn’t a generic term but a personal one. In terms of meaning, strength changes from individual to individual. So, for a writer, that means defining what “inner strength” means to you.

Strong is a State of Mind.

Let’s redefine “inner strength” as courage. Courage is not being without weakness, it’s about overcoming fears and insecurities. It’s about facing uncomfortable truths even when the lies those truths hide make up the fabric of your memory.

There’s no single right answer or way to go about portraying a character who is courageous in their daily life, who stands up, who faces down what makes them afraid, and who tries even knowing they might fail. Kindness is a gift given to someone else, and while you might hope for reciprocation you’re not guaranteed a response.

“This is about what I can do,” this type of character says. “This is not about what you or what you deserve. I’m kind because I believe in kindness. You can be cruel to me, that’s you’re choice. I’ll continue to be kind to you because that’s the approach I’ve chosen.”

You don’t need to subvert, or deconstruct, or reconstruct. What you’ve got to do is play the archetype straight. Write the character who genuinely believes kindness can change the world. You don’t need a character who starts out “strong” and inner strength isn’t easily quantified in the general sense. You need a character who is wiling to stand up for their beliefs, even when their insecure, frightened, unsure, and hopeless. Creating a character who genuinely is mentally and emotionally strong is creating a character who is learning how to be strong as they go through their experiences, in figuring out what that means for them and for you, discovering how they got there, throwing aside cynicism, and in the end believing that  kindness really can make a difference.

You’ve got to decide what “inner strength” is in the context of your story. For me, inner strength is the most important quality for any character. I define “strength” by their emotional experiences, how they deal with them, if they face them, their decisions, their beliefs, and how those shape their story within the narrative. Each one has their own qualities, their own strengths.

“Yes, the world can be a dark and dangerous place. Yes, people can by cynical and self-interested. Yes, cruelty, indifference, and ambivalence are all easier to accept. Yes, sometimes, changing even one small aspect of this world seems impossible. Hope can be frightening, it’s painful to see your dreams crushed. I know this task is Sisyphean, every time we get that boulder to the top of the hill it just rolls back down. Sometimes, for me, even just getting out of the bed in the morning can be herculean. But you? You’re just using cynicism to excuse action. In your world, we’re already doomed. That attitude just protects the status quo. I won’t stand aside. I won’t do nothing. I won’t let fear stop me and I won’t let you stop me either. I’m going whether you come with me or not.”

The irony for all the cynics will tell you their way is more “realistic” is that it’s much more difficult to maintain hope, to stay hopeful, positive, and to keep chasing after your dreams. It’s more difficult to be kind than it is to be cruel. You risk more in being open to others than you do in being closed, and its much harder to keep sticking your hand back into the fire after you’ve been burned. The mistake comes with assuming that being kind is easy. It is under most circumstances, but there are those where you need to dig deep to maintain that smile. It’s easy to see the flaws and failings in other people, and much harder to reach out. The mistake is in assuming these characters have never seen the world’s darkness, that they’re sheltered, and that once they’re exposed to that darkness they’ll change their tune. That’s not necessarily true.

Now, there are those kinds of characters whose kindness is based in both innocence and ignorance. Who are open because they have the privilege of living in an environment where they don’t regularly encounter cruelty, where no one has specifically been directly cruel to them, where they’ve never had the values they espouse challenged. Then, there are the characters who have had their values challenged. The ones who locked hands with misery and despair, who went through their crucibles, and came out the other side fire forged. These characters genuinely believe in the values they espouse, all the way down to the extreme end of pacifism where even when their life is threatened they never raise a hand to defend themselves with violence. They choose words instead.

There isn’t anything unrealistic about characters choosing a path of peace over one of war. Diplomacy is a real skill set with real value in the real world. There are plenty of people out there every day making a difference, by giving time to good causes, who chase after their own dreams of a better world. There are plenty of examples out there to show you can’t make a better world through violence. Plenty of different philosophies on the subject too.

Strength comes from growth, from picking ourselves back up when we fall down, and standing up again. Like Sisyphus with his boulder, there’s no shortage of pitfalls to knock us back down to square one. That “inner strength” comes from fortitude, from the willingness to keep going, from acknowledging our own failings, and being patient with others for theirs.

So, the question becomes do you believe in the values this character espouses? Can you be genuine when you write them? Can you be honest with their struggles? Can you be honest? Can you write from the perspective where you believe in what they stand for, but are willing to challenge them and put those beliefs to the test? Are you willing to let them fall short? Willing to see them fail?

Maybe I don’t want to be gentle all the time? I always try to be kind! I try and I try, and I try, and I’m sick of it! I’m not getting anywhere, and when I do you’re there with some witty crack about how it couldn’t get better than this! Why are you doing this to me? How can you go through life like this doesn’t affect you? People are suffering! They’re suffering and I can’t do anything about it!

Ultimately, the difference between a character who affects the audience and a character who is eye-roll worthy is whether you admit that they’re human. Even then, so what if they are eye-roll worthy? Sometimes, you need to start with a cliche and then when given context the character emerges. There’s nothing generic about this sort of character’s strength, they are an individual whose beliefs are challenged and shaped by their experiences.

Bravery requires we take risks. Risks mean that sometimes we fail, but we can’t allow fear of failing to stop us. Learning about “inner strength” requires taking a long hard look at yourself. There aren’t any special tricks to getting past the boulder, no special means of ensuring success. Sometimes, you just need to be willing to stand there and risk letting the boulder hit you. The cynic will tell you that its better not to try anyway because you were always going to fail. However, the honest truth is that you don’t know until you try.

The act of facing your fears is growth all by itself. Putting yourself out there, even if you fail, is an act of courage.

That’s really how we do it.

One step at a time.

-Michi

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Q&A: Feel Good Violence is Universal

So I’ve seen a lot of your posts on violence but how does that stuff pertain to a fantasy novel where fighting is a character’s way of life? Like his job is to fight off monsters and stuff so does fight scenes still fall under feel good violence or any other pitfalls you’ve discussed?

Feel Good Violence is the trope which makes a lot of our readers go, “I came out to have a good time and I’m feeling so attacked right now.” Mostly because they’re misunderstanding what it means, and assume that this relates to over the top violence, or exciting superhero movie fight scenes, or scenes that are written purely to be exciting and fun. That’s not what Feel Good Violence refers to.

Feel Good Violence is about violence written without consequences and scenes that have no narrative impact, which ultimately serve no purpose in the story except to show us how awesome the hero is, by itself, alone, and are scenes ultimately not worth anyone’s time. Feel Good Violence is your hero initiating a beat down on some poor schmuck in a bar at a level they certainly didn’t deserve, where they destroy the bar in the process, and everyone cheers. If you ignore the pitfalls of Feel Good Violence, you will cast your hero as a bully and most of your readership may not notice because violence as wish fulfillment translates directly into bullying and bullying really does feel good.

Feel Good Violence is your character contextually behaving the same way as a nasty anon sending nasty messages into someone random person’s inbox in the name of their fave and then being celebrated for it. Without context, without perspective, this is violence designed to feel good and violence where the action leads the narrative nowhere.

Violence has a high price tag, whether that price is paid physically through exhaustion or injury, socially through its impact on those individuals around you and the way they treat you, and culturally through the rules and laws put down by whatever governing body rules your setting. Fight scenes are great for your fiction because that high price tag (which will impact every aspect of their life) is an easy road to high key drama with high stakes.

Feel Good Violence ignores the stakes, negates tension, and destroys drama, these scenes exist purely as an abstract and float outside the narrative’s actual plot. They do nothing, they influence nothing, they incite nothing, and ultimately mean nothing. They are the character acting without fear of consequences in a narrative sanctioned environment where those consequences can never occur because the author won’t let them threaten the protagonist. Consequences to their behavior simply don’t apply, no concept of long term pay off exists, justification is broken down on the lines of “good” and “bad”. The police officer will threaten the snitch who provides them with information, beat them up, throw them into walls, in order to remind the audience that the officer is tough. Forgetting that the snitch provides the police officer with important information, information where in the same situation and in a better narrative would no longer be available down the line when the police officer needs it.

The problem with Feel Good Violence is that consequences and fallout from your character’s actions are what create tension. In fact, most characters that general audience adore adore them in part because they’re walking drama bombs. Like the bad boy loner with a temper who punches out the school bully and lands both himself and the protagonist in detention.

Inciting Incident > Negative Action > Consequences

Feel Good Violence would just have the bad boy punch the school bully, and wander away while the bully lies on the floor crying while the in-scene audience cheers.

Inciting Incident > Negative Action > Poot

In characters that are supposed to be combat professionals, the mentality this trope creates will lead to abdication of responsibility and them behaving in ways that are unprofessional in the extreme. You won’t have any respect for the damage the character is capable of doing because you discarded the price tag. A real professional, or even just a recreational martial artist, knows they must moderate their behavior to react in ways which are situationally appropriate. They carefully weight their response because just hauling off on some stupid motherfucker can have some terrible consequences.

Now, while those consequences can be bad for the character in-setting they could be great for the narrative and the plot as a whole; but only if you let the consequences of those choices play out.

A cop beating up a snitch and then the snitch turning on them down the line is great drama. The monster hunter who accidentally destroys a town, whose actions have unintended consequences, or pulling a Geralt and hacking off some idiot’s hand in order to get hired for a job is great drama.

So, yes, this one applies to everything you write regardless of genre because it directly relates to the consequences revolving around your characters actions. Violence is very expensive, regardless of how fantastical the setting is. Feel Good Violence is consequence free, these scenes exists purely to make you feel good without having to worry about anyone’s feelings or anyone (you care about) getting hurt. You see the best examples of this trope in wish-fulfillment characters where the end result of the mentality is a main character becoming a psychopathic bully. At least, they will when you look at the external context of the actions they’re taking. However, if you choose to never critically think as a reader, you’ll simply absorb these scenes and cheer.

You avoid feel good violence by bringing consequences home into your fiction, and having the character’s behavior impact their daily life and how others see them. For example, if your character is a monster hunter and the monster he’s hunting gets into the town that hired him and destroys it, they’re not going to be very happy with him. They will continue to not be happy with him even if he does kill it and ultimately saves their lives. There are other consequences to be had like their homes, equipment, and livelihoods have all been destroyed.  It’s like Spider-Man destroying your car by throwing it at Rhino to stop him.

Thanks for saving my life, buddy, but I still need to get to work tomorrow.

A good way to double check yourself on Feel Good Violence is to stop and think about what’s happening context wise in your story. Most of the issues with Feel Good Violence stem from being too connected to your protagonists and trying to smooth the way for them, or engineering events to try to control how others will react. Those reactions and consequences are part of what create realism and tension within your fiction. Step outside your protagonist and start thinking from the perspective of other characters in your story, about how you’d react if these events happened to you. If you saw X occurring, how would you react? What reaction would help the story to progress?

Essentially, treat violence and your fight scenes like events actually occurring in the setting with real effects on the narrative and you’ll avoid Feel Good Violence.

-Michi

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Q&A: A Setting’s Philosophy is Realism

Wow, okay, didn’t expect a whole discussion on Sith philosophy… My question was more like, does Kylo Ren punching his own physical wound help him in that specific fight? Does it keep him from passing out, does it help his body perform any better, that sort of thing.

That’s because the most realistic aspect of Star Wars is the combat philosophy running behind the Jedi and the Sith, and they’re not totally terrible as a way to start learning about how philosophy influences martial combat. They are ultimately an extension of the trope: Martial Arts Give You Superpowers. This is not unique to Star Wars, and comes primarily from Eastern philosophies like the Tao and how they were applied to the martial styles developed there. Martial arts often do look like magic to the casual observer. Besides that, the enlightenment/understanding of yourself, your body, and the universe directly correlates with your ability to throw an opponent across the room. The best thing you can do for yourself is understand that Star Wars, specifically the Original Trilogy, are useful as an introduction to this side of martial arts.

There’s not much point in discussing the mechanics of the final fight between Kylo Ren versus Finn and Rey in The Force Awakens. It isn’t a great fight scene, and one that only serves to undercut Kylo Ren’s competency both as a combatant and as a villain. It’s bad on a multitude of levels from character, narrative consistency to choreography, though the cinematography itself is nice enough when we’re not comparing it to the Original Trilogy. Even injured, that was a fight which should’ve been no contest for Kylo Ren. Or allowed Rey to use the weapons she was actually good at using, rather than a weapon which is very good at cutting off your own limbs when you make a mistake. The lightsaber is the three-section staff of Star Wars, if you don’t know what you’re doing then you’re guaranteed a concussion first time out. (No, that is not a joke. The three-section staff does that to real martial artists all the time.)

On a setting or narrative level,  you can’t divest Kylo Ren from the Sith philosophy and the behavior patterns which make a Dark Side user strong. In this case, both the Jedi and the Sith are more bombastic echoes of what real people can achieve in real life. We can’t talk about the physical applications of what Kylo Ren does without talking about his mental state and mind set. The useful effects of beating your wounded shoulder depend entirely on your approach to pain. As for Ren himself, he’s a fantasy character in a fantasy environment powered by the Force, which is essentially a concept straight out of the Tao. Him beating his wound has about as much relevance as him destroying a console with his lightsaber, and its also self-destructive. The script calls for it so he’ll look tough or more badass, and to remind the audience that he’s wounded.

A discussion on the Sith philosophy is crucial to Kylo Ren’s behavior as a character and how he uses pain to motivate himself, because the Sith use pain to motivate themselves and that philosophy is an offshoot of a real martial arts philosophy which exists in the real world. Powered by pain is a philosophy which directly relates to your mental state, and Kylo Ren beats his wound because he’s… trying to look tough. There’s no realism worth discussing with his fight decisions. In that way, he’s a moron.

You don’t want to get the blood leaving any faster or at all because you will start passing out from blood loss. When you fight, your heart starts beating more quickly, the quicker beat means the blood moves through your body more quickly, if your body has holes the blood will exit those holes quicker too. You do any physical exercise with an open wound you will bleed out faster. If you have a wound like that, you want to seal it off as quickly as possible.

The short answer is that Kylo Ren beats his wound to be dramatic because he’s a drama queen, and he likes to remind the audience that he is in pain. If he actually wanted to do do something about his wound quickly, stop the bleed out, and motivate himself with pain he’d cauterize the wound with his lightsaber. If he wanted to double that up as an intimidation tactic, he’d cauterize while Rey and Finn are watching in order to terrify them before the battle begins. This is a Sith tactic, and a method you can use to intimidate your enemies in real life. Sith have even been known to intentionally inflict injury before a fight begins because it gets them fired up. Kylo’s really not that clever though, which is why I call him a cosplayer rather than a Sith Lord. He showboats without any real substance. A better example of what Kylo Ren tries to do is found in your average Wuxia film. The original Die Hard with Bruce Willis is also better, and probably more useful for discussing realism and realistic injuries someone would sustain in an action film.

For what Ren does to work, you need a character who’s determination goes up in conjunction to the number of injuries they sustain. As I said, this is a Sith. The more you beat on a Sith, the stronger they get. This is an outgrowth of a real world philosophy regarding pain taken to extremes, which is: the more you beat on someone, the more painful their situation gets, then the more determined they get and the more motivated they are to succeed. There are people in the real world who do this, and this is a natural outgrowth of someone who has had a very difficult life and experienced a great deal of emotional/physical pain. The more pain you experience, then the more you adjust to it, grow comfortable with it, and start shaking off injuries other people would find incredibly debilitating. Often, this happens without the individual even realizing it because their base state for “normal” is skewed beyond recognizable and they adjusted to meet that state of pain in order to survive. This is The Determinator. You can rip them to pieces and like a human terminator, they. just. keep. coming. This occurs on sheer force of will alone, because your mind is more powerful than your body.

Get up!

You beat your wound because it feels good, or you’re frustrated with your arm not functioning the way you want it to and insist on it working again. Pain feels good, and if you can’t imagine a character to whom pain feels good, who enjoys experiencing injury, or simply finds their body’s failings annoying then this character archetype is not for you. Running into real people who are shades of this in your real life might also terrify you. They’re out there, and they’re not just combat professionals, soldiers, or martial artists.

Kylo genuinely tries for this but his personality doesn’t match. Compared to other Sith in previous Star Wars movies (like Darth Vader or Count Dooku), he’s actually very wasteful in his combat style when it comes to physical action. He makes big sweeping moves, he’s ultimately very slow, leaves himself wide open, and he lacks Maul’s dramatic flair. He has a very heavy fighting style which is supposed to represent power, or link him back to Vader, but Vader had the benefit of a sword style performed by Bob Anderson. The first fight between Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope is actually fairly accurate to Kendo as duels go.

Kylo is the sort of character where any injury he sustains is supposed to make him more dangerous. In old school Star Wars canon, the injury he sustains in TFA shouldn’t benefit Rey at all. His injury should ramp up his connection to the Force instead, resulting in him becoming more dangerous and more deadly. That’s what the injury beating is supposed to show. However, this sense of danger is undercut by the narrative because neither Rey or Finn have any sort of training with the weapon they’re trying to use. Kylo being forced to fight on an equal playing field with Rey, even after defeating Finn, actually undercuts him as a villain and as a combatant. It frames him as incompetent when compared to his other Dark Side brethren, who all had the benefit of fighting someone who knew what they were doing or were taking it easy on someone who didn’t. (Darth Maul versus Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Vader versus Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke versus Vader in Cloud City.) Kylo Ren is allowed none of those opportunities, and he is the least threatening as a result.

He’s not a character who’s personality matches one you can kick out of a plane in a desperate attempt to get rid of them only to have them show up three weeks later, royally pissed off and ready to kill you all over again. This character is the outgrowth of and natural extension of the injury beating we see Kylo Ren do. This really is who he’s supposed to be and who he’s trying to be because that’s who Vader was. Vader got all four limbs cut off by his master, half-burned to death by lava, lost/attempted to murder his wife, lost his children, and went on to terrify billions across the galaxy.

-Michi

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Q&A: Powered By Pain

Can you use pain to keep yourself going? I’ve experienced back pains where the waves hurt like hell but at the same time sort of feel good to endure. As a fiction example, I’m think Kylo Ren punching his own wound at the end of TFA.

Yes, you will learn to do it if you engage in any kind of exercise on a regular basis, especially if you do any sort of competitive sport. You don’t need to train in martial arts or be a martial combatant, but there are entire philosophies built off the concept of using the general discomfort you experience while working out as a  motivating factor. Mind over Matter is one example. The Determinator as a character archetype is another. Sith philosophy is built around this concept dialed to eleven and taken to its most toxic extreme.

The healthy usage of pain involves learning to distinguish real injuries from your body’s complaint. In this way your body protesting when you push yourself to a sprint over the last half lap at the end of a mile feels really good. Pain becomes a mental and physical block to overcome and push past to new heights. That discomfort feels good. This becomes a tool for self-empowerment, and its a cultural cornerstone for anything… and everything. It’s everywhere, you just never learned how to look for it.

I get knocked down, but I get up again. You ain’t never gonna keep me down. – Chumbawamba.

In the real world, this tops out with some very toxic behavior by athletes, martial artists, soldiers, etc, where they will themselves through serious injuries in an attempt to ignore them for short term gains and result in permanently injuring themselves. Not resting when you’re sick and trying to power through it is one example, being restless and frustrated by your injuries, getting back to training before you’ve fully healed, etc.

Whenever we come through a difficult or painful experience, that experience empowers us. What we’ve endured, whether that pain is emotional or physical becomes a source of strength. We’ve overcome, and we’re proud of that. On the flip side, Positive Pain is also the philosophical basis for “oh, you’re so weak” attitudes, putting people down because they’re not “strong enough”, and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” are based on the idea that the pain and hardships you experience are good for you. That if you’re having trouble then all you need to do is toughen up. See also: child abuse as a disciplinary tool.

Kylo Ren is a terrible example of the Sith utilization of pain as a tool for personal empowerment, he’s not on the radar for the crazy stuff they get up to, and barely for the real philosophy. He certainly doesn’t use the philosophy or purse it in a meaningful way. Lord Sleeps With Vibroblades is probably the best example of this Sith taken to the extreme end. (In Legends, the Sith are secondary to the true Pain Kings of Star Wars i.e. the Yuuzhan Vong. They make the Sith pain obsession look healthy by comparison.) Kylo Ren’s not really out there for a Sith or martial arts philosophies about using pain to give yourself a power up/invincible/make you immortal. Which is a thing in Star Wars with the Force. The more you beat on a Sith, the more you fight them, the more powerful they become. In the case of Darth Sion, you literally have to talk him to death.

Luke fighting against Vader is Luke playing to Vader’s strengths, which is why Vader spends the entire battle in Return of the Jedi attempting to emotionally unsettle him. Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader is a philosophical conflict, which is part of what lends the scene so much weight.

The Sith use their emotional conflict, inner turmoil, and internal strife to empower themselves. That is… Sith. Their training is actively physically and emotionally abusive in order to transform them into a character Powered By Pain. They don’t whine about it, they conquer it, they take pleasure in it, they enjoy suffering. They turn that pain into power, and inflict their negative emotions, their own suffering onto others. Some of the most powerful Sith are internally being torn apart, all the time, they’re tearing themselves apart. They start out abuse victims and those who survive conquer to become abusers themselves, that is the Sith cycle at its core. They’ll inflict trauma and misery and pain and suffering and and loss and terrible injury because the emotions those experiences will bring out make you strong. Access the Dark Side with raw rage, terror,  constant/immense physical pain, weaponize all three, add a dose of killer ruthlessness, and you get Darth Vader.

Look at him.

He’s in constant pain, his pain makes him angry,  leaves him enraged, and his hate for the world makes him a terrible force to be reckoned with. He is empowered by pain, by fear, and by rage. He’s mastered his emotions, weaponized them, and now forces others to experience shades of what he has.

Through pain, find strength. Through rage, find clarity. Through injury, know thyself.

A Sith is a wounded animal lashing out at the world around them,  raw, passionate, terrified, selfish, self-obsessed, incredibly destructive to those they encounter and just as desperately self-destructive. They taught to be that way by their master, then become it themselves as they learn to their own inner struggle. A Jedi finds strength in making peace with their wounds, in healing, where a Sith takes strength from letting themselves bleed. A Sith stalls out the healing process, and breaks their drivers stick in order to remain stuck in Stage Two out of the Five Stages of Grief: Anger.

If you lack a solid understanding of the way rage presents itself within the human condition, its varied nature, and varied approaches then you’ll end up with an angsty, whiny, immature teenager like Kylo Ren. You end up thinking the pain is what’s important, the rage is important, but rage poorly directed is impotent in the narrative scheme. Without maturity in your understanding, you get a child lashing out in a temper tantrum. They’re going nowhere.

Kylo Ren destroys a console with his lightsaber (wasteful) when things don’t go his way, he actively destroys what he needs to succeed. Darth Vader murders the admiral or captain responsible for the mission’s failure and immediately replaces them with a more motivated underling, he’s getting rid of impediments to success. One is a petulant self-sabotaging child, the other is the worst day shift manager who is still getting shit done.

Pain is not the important part, the willpower and drive to endure and overcome is. You’ve got to do something with your pain. This pain becomes part of what motivates you to succeed.

This is ten percent luck
Twenty percent skill
Fifteen percent concentrated power of will
Five percent pleasure
Fifty percent pain
And a hundred percent reason to remember the name.
– “Remember the Name”, Fort Minor

“The world treated me poorly so I will respond in kind” is really the starting point for a Sith, and this attitude upgrades into high key drama with black cloaks and sworn oaths of vengeance. They are living incarnations of the Id run amok, often wallowing in the worst aspects of humanity driven to the darkest extremes, but their pain (usually) comes from a real place. What makes them so compelling, I think, is that their behavior and their experiences are a natural extension of what the audience has experienced in their own lives. Their response to that pain is cathartic, and the attitude is natural; even sympathetic. We’ve all wanted to be selfish, devoted to our own ambitions at the expense of all else without societal judgement. The Sith are easier to understand than the Jedi.

Kylo Ren is a terrible example of this philosophy because he doesn’t take ownership of his pain, he blames others for his injuries, he doesn’t weaponize his suffering. In comparison to other Sith, his pain and internal strife are window dressing. They don’t mean much on a narrative level, his pain isn’t driving him to become stronger. He’s not using his passionate and painful emotions to fuel his strength, achieve greater enlightenment, or his strengthen connection to the Dark Side of the Force. He complains about the pain he experiences, he complains about how unfair life is, he complains about being in pain and seeks audience sympathy for the “unjust circumstances” surrounding his life. He’s like a whiny teenager,and, since he’s thirty, his development’s pretty arrested. That’s… not great, Bob. Compare him to Dooku, Ventress, and Anakin Skywalker. Their pain and rage catapulted them into actual narrative action, became the foundations of their characters, and led to ambitions they pursued for their own personal gratification.

Powered by Pain is a personality type that finds its extreme in The Determinator, they are willpower embodied. The more difficult the situation becomes the stronger they get, the more they’re energized by events, and they just keep getting up time after time. No matter what you inflict, they keep coming.

Characters who embody this philosophy even just a little are either those who find strength in what they’ve endured, or bullies lashing out at the world around them as they run from pain. You will either be a slave to pain, or you will face pain and take control of what hurts you. In this process, you’ll either become a kinder, more compassionate individual or someone who is colder, crueler, more distant, less sympathetic, and even elitist toward others’ “weakness” on the emotional spectrum.

The TLDR to your question is: yes.

Overcoming pain is absolutely one means of personal empowerment, both physically and psychologically, and an experience every single person reading this has shared to varying degrees (even if they don’t realize it.)

The problem is the conversation is so much larger than you might imagine, so fundamental to a multitude of cultures around the world, so embedded in the human psyche and popular culture that we really can’t have a quick discussion about it.

‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off.
– “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift
Yes, even Taylor Swift has this philosophy going on.

So, do me a favor, and leave Kylo Ren at the door. He can’t come in. He’s a weak-willed, lilly-livered wannabe with delusions of grandeur. He’s a bully, he has a “strong” exterior but his insides are crumbling. He’s more a vague cosplay than the genuine article, playacting. The Elric brothers from FMA are much better examples when it comes to using personal tragedy and physical injury as a motivating force to achieve your goals. They’re a much more positive example too.

If you want to be empowered by pain, you’ve got to run at your problems and not away from them. Use your fear as a catapult, let it propel you toward conquest.

-Michi

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Q&A: Violence Is All About Efficiency

if i recall correctly you all have talked before about how being a little faster or stronger isn’t nearly as important as the better choice of armor or weapons and having competency with them, but from what i know of HEMA, in general the weaponry and so the armor of europe generally trended toward more of a style of finesse in fighting (which involves a large amount of training with your weapon of course), would that be accurate to say?

No, assuming strength, dexterity, finesse, or any other trait involves missing the most important one of all: efficiency.  In order to write good fight scenes, this is one you need to internalize. There are two terms to familiarize yourself with:

The Economy of Violence.

Conservation of Movement.

If you are not efficient with the energy you have, you will die.  No matter how much endurance you have and how much you train, your energy pool will always be limited. The entire goal of martial combat is to expend as little energy as possible while protecting yourself as much as you possibly can. Finesse, strength, dexterity, any other attribute comes in second to this goal, and you do not need a long period of training to learn to be efficient. Small, minute movements rather than large ones conserve energy; weapons make it easier to kill your enemies, and the more efficient the weapon, the easier it is to learn in a short period of time. The weapons Europe gravited toward were weapons that required little time to learn and were effective with marginal training, because you didn’t need to waste time getting someone up to snuff. The easier a weapon is, the more individuals gravitate towards learning how to use the weapon, the more widespread it becomes, and the quicker it is adapted as a cultural mainstay.  See: the handgun.

In the modern era, we can train a combat ready soldier in three months. They won’t be the best, they won’t be perfect, but they’ll be effective and, more importantly, efficient in their fighting style.

The Economy of Violence is the cost of violence, the toil it takes on the body, the time it takes to kill your enemy, and what you must pay physically, mentally, and emotionally in order to win. Violence has both costs and consequences, internalizing this concept is necessary as a writer to bring realism to your fiction. This is an economy you must create within your own writing, and keep at the forefront of your mind. Unlike the real world, you’re creating the rules and, while that sounds great, the rules are what sustain Suspension of Disbelief. Violating those rules will break the disbelief, and dispel the illusion. Not so terrible compared to the real world where misunderstanding the cost and consequence of violence will get you injured, killed, shamed, and shunned.

Fictional characters are often wasteful to the point of becoming unrealistic because they don’t need to face physical, mental, emotional, and societal consequences of their actions if the writer chooses to exclude them. They can fight forever if the writer wants.  They can do whatever you want them to. Of course, these stories lack tension, audiences cry about their believability, and there’s not much point to reading them. Still, you can if you want.

Efficiency is a lesson which carries beyond violence. Embracing the Economy of Violence and learning to be efficient in your own writing will help you grow into a better writer. Your scenes will flow better, your narrative will stay on point, your characters will feel more like real people, your sentences will be uncluttered, and your writing will have purpose. You’ll understand what you’re doing, where you’re going, and what toll you’ll need to pay in order to get where you want to be. Your characters will start making choices dependent less on what the narrative needs and more on their own survival. They’ll start choosing violent actions that are more than set pieces, but based in their emotions and their smarts. Their narrative structure will support them with natural fallout.

Understand this, the make or break is in how well you control your resources. The tension is in the cost and consequence, in the time it takes to achieve objectives. Waste not, want not, after all.

If you study the evolution of violence and martial combat styles worldwide, even without the ancillary details, the focus is always not just on what works but what takes the least time. Effectiveness is the order of the day. After all, why use three strokes to achieve the same goal when you can just use one. When looking to improve, the focus rests on streamlining and raising the effectiveness of the tool at hand. The tools are discarded when better or more effective/efficient tools come along.

This is why your fight scenes need internal justification from your characters. They shouldn’t be taking out the inhabitants of whole castles on extraction missions just because they can. This path isn’t better because it wastes time, because it involves putting in more work than you need and involves taking more risks than necessary. Outside of a character justification like hubris, there’s just no point. The more capable a character is, the more efficient they’re going to be and more focused on economizing their violence. They’ll maximize their input if it achieves maximum output in the trade off. They’ll waste less time than other characters, be more capable of assessing a situation, and they’ll be ending fights in fewer blows. Everything will be contracted and concise, because it’s ultimately less wasteful and saves energy in the long run. That energy saved can be applied to the next opponent, or escape, or a half a dozen other scenarios. The goal is to be as quick as possible, and how you get there is ultimately up to you.

This is why applying physical attributes like strength, dexterity, and finesse ultimately shortchange the conversation. You can make any of those work, and can gain them with any body type, but what you can’t work with is someone who isn’t efficient, who wastes time, who makes big visible motions that don’t amount to anything. Someone who can’t conserve their energy, and who wastes it. Even when they don’t seem to be efficient, all the surviving martial arts are, in their own unique ways. Fortifications, as an example, are designed to get your enemy to spend more energy reaching you and setting up natural traps where invaders can be safely mopped up by the defenders. It’s all about making your job easier, and, keep in mind, your enemy wants the exact same thing.

I’ll grant you, finesse sounds cooler than conservation, economy, or efficiency. However, to cleave to that will miss the ultimate point which helps you write better fight scenes. More than any other aspect, you need the Economy of Violence to set up rules for your violence within the narrative. Those rules fuel suspension of disbelief, and help keep your audience invested in the narrative. They are the part of violence that is “real”.

-Michi

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Q&A: Mace v. Staff

Mace v.s. staff, both unarmoured, both have equal level of training/skill (Western-style, so just focused on their own weapon): who wins? (The mace-wielder primarily has experience fighting armoured opponents, but has fought unarmoured ones plenty of times before; the staff-wielder has almost exclusively fought the latter)

Staff.

This isn’t a question, and most of the additions in this question are ultimately pointless. Primary weapon advantages are decided by distance, or a concept called reach. Weapons aren’t universal or all made equal, the staff is much longer than the mace with more available attack patterns and defensive options. However, the big one is the weapon’s reach. This means the weapon can hit you before you get into range to hit them. The mace is meant to be wielded together with a shield, and against an armored opponent or an unarmed one. The staff will beat out a sword, and will strike at distances from which a sword wielder cannot retaliate.

This isn’t a training problem, a staff wielder with significantly less experience can beat an experienced fighter using a mace. The mace is meant to crack open plate, or get around Catholic restrictions regarding priests causing individuals to bleed. That’s it’s purpose. It is a highly specialized weapon. A staff will parlay into the base for a multitude of different polearms from the spear to the halberd. The fighter carrying the staff needs to do is put a metal tip on the end of his weapon and he can poke holes in his enemy. He doesn’t need to though, because a heavy quarterstaff made of solid oak will shatter bones and bust up internal organs just fine on its own.

The fight will end before the guy using the mace can close, and without a shield he’s going to leave one half of his unarmored body entirely open. All you have to do is hit that part. Or start with their legs and move upwards. The staff is a highly effective self-defense weapon on par with, if not more popular than the sword. It lacks the glamor and the prestige, but it is incredibly effective in a wide variety of situations where the mace is just a metal club. Clubs are great, but they’re very repetitious and definitely not friendly.

This fight will start and end with one guy getting his ribs broken, maybe his collarbone after, then his head, and end the day dumped in the drink. Knocked off into the river.

The staff runs between being six to eight feet long, and the mace is… much shorter than that. Check out this fight scene from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, this showcases a fight between spears (this is an iconic fight scene) but pay attention to how far apart they are. When you’re fighting someone with a staff, they’ll keep you at a similar distance and they can use the entirety of the weapon. They can transition up and down the weapon with their grip to create new distances when the time comes to close. The guy with the staff can block the guy with the mace with one end, and then transition into a strike from the other without letting up pressure. Or, knock the mace away (if they’re in any danger, which is generous) and strike back across. The staff is controlled via leverage with the hands, and the fulcrum is where the hands are.

The guy with the mace would know, if he’s trained, this is a weapon that he doesn’t want to deal with and is unprepared for. This is a fight he wants to avoid, and he’d bring a different weapon. A weapon like a maul. Unarmored, a sword wouldn’t be much better for him if he has a mace and lacks a shield. Give the guy with a mace a shield and some armor, then you’ve got a fight.

No, this is not suddenly an entirely uneven fight and the guy with the mace is still at a disadvantage.

Allow me to explain.

A heavy oak staff can put a dent in your plate. This isn’t some light weapon, these are dense weapons. They often came plated at both ends in steel.  The mace has no real defensive options, it is made for swinging and you need to get close enough to your opponent to hit them. The staff is going to make that difficult. Remember, Little John’s traditional weapon is the quarterstaff and no one really questioned him taking that up against Norman knights. Despite being one of the Merry Men who generally takes it on the chin in modern adaptations, Little John could wreck a tax collector’s day. Trained people. Trained footmen. Trained knights.

You actually need the shield to block the staff, allowing the character with the mace to get close enough to strike their opponent. This won’t be easy, as the staff can still strike at the body parts the shield won’t or can’t block including the feet/legs and head.  This is where armor for the head and the feet come in. This limits the staff’s options, but doesn’t negate them. They can still go for the side of the body with the mace.  The guy with the mace needs to hide behind his shield, use it to block t attacks by the staff, get close enough to hit the staff wielder, and then strike them overhand with the mace.

If they lose any part of their body from the shoulder to the arm to hand to their legs on that side then they are done, thus with one side protected by the shield then the weapon side becomes the preferential target. Attacking the arm/hand wielding the weapon is an accepted strategy in martial forms across the globe.

Even with a shield though, the strikes taken on the shield are going to wear out the arm of the guy with the mace. The angle the shield is held is a strain, and the constant impact is going to wear out the bicep and tricep fairly quickly. Far more quickly than the impact will wear down the staff wielder’s hands. Without armor, the mace wielder’s muscles take the impact through the shield straight. Remember, a shield mitigates impact. It doesn’t negate it. Armor is the same, it mitigates the damage taken by impact. It does not, however, negate it.

Don’t underestimate one of the most common, functional, easily learned, and versatile weapons in human history just because it’s made of wood.

Ultimately, these pieces of cause and effect, opportunity and cost, and risk assessment with weapons are what make your fight tense. Me showing you why this guy is screwed should, honestly, be exciting to you because sacrifice is where the tension is and what makes a battle exciting. The battering of resources, the cutting away of options, the slow or quick degradation of the muscles to the point they’re no longer usable. The shield arm being battered so hard that the protection becomes worthless when the character can barely lift their arm. Understanding specifically what it is which makes a battle uneven or even creates opportunity to add tension to your fiction.

The dragons’ wings snapped open and they leveled off, sweeping over the train. Shooting over them in a blast, air screaming as they passed.

The dinosaurs shuffled, pressing together, milling from the scents and sounds.

“They’re going to stampede the train,” Anara observed, drawing her pistol from within the folds of her cloak. “Not that the diplo move fast.”

Nathan glanced at her sharply. “Have your men hold them!”

Anara lifted her wrist, murmuring into her link.

A sensation passed across the back of Nathan’s mind, the shiver of incoming danger. His neck prickled, hair raising on his skin. He whipped about.

A shadowy, hooded figure leapt across the packs on the back of the triceratops, fiery orange blade flashing in the sunlight.

Nathan’s blade ignited, he lunged between the attacker and Anara.

Circling overhead, Leon, Baral, and Dorcal roared a challenge the newcomers.

Nathan felt Leon shudder when the attacking dragons answered. Fifteen drakes, ten now, and two dragons. One male, a fully grown beta-king, and the other a female — a matriarch. The Renegades have a matriarch, Nathan thought, as the realization sank in. His blade clashed in a sizzle of flaming red light on orange, his enemy pressing her advantage, and he’d no more opportunity to think. He pressed his advantage, leveraging his blade as they slammed together. Pushing her back across the unstable footing of the packs. Or, he wondered when a boxes fell away to the ground in blow after blow, drawn after her.

Yes, his heart quickened, her.

Thin and lithe, the hooded woman leapt lightly from one box to the other. His mental pressure glancing off the tight bubble she contained herself within, telekinesis similarly blocked. She danced between the packs as they fell away. Dropping onto the triceratops long back when the last finally hit the ground, she levered her orange blade at his heart.

Two of the enemy drakes overhead broke off. Cutting away from Baral and Dorcal, they twisted in choreographed precision above the shifting herbivores and let out bone shaking roars.

Nathan’s teeth grit. Leon!

She’s here!

The diplodocus came crashing to a halt, their tails switching back and forth in terror. The train halted, backing up, and breaking off toward the trees. A massive wave of terror rose from the milling dinosaurs, sweeping out across the road. Animalistic terror and… something else.

Nathan stretched out with his mind, to get a better feel for the human undercurrent, but a second mind leapt between them. The shrouded woman jumped past him, cutting his mind off cleanly as her blade locked up his. She’s a dragonrider, he realized. No just any Renegade, but a trained Dragon-Knight. Her sword style faintly reminiscent of the Jesaran sabre techniques, but with stances predominantly influenced by those practiced by the Dragon-Knights out of High Reaches. He rained attacks down on her, striking evenly in tempo.

She answered him blow for blow, weight shifting with each of the triceratops lumbering steps.  telekinetic thrust threw her back across the packs and she twisted in midair to land on her feet. Her legs splayed, one hand pressed to the uneven canvas and rope. Her hooded head rose. Flame licked up her orange blade, light and heat crackling in the air. The woman shot forward, racing toward him along the length of the triceratops’s spine. She closed the distance between them, pulsing bright as a star in his second sight. A raw storm within his senses, sizzling his synapses.

Nathan struck low, toward her legs, and her blade met his. Bearing down on her with his weight, his sabre edged closer and closer to her protected leg.

Yielding under the pressure, she shut off her blade and stepped sideways. Let his weight carry him past her. Launching off the back of the triceratops, she twisted into a backflip and landed lightly on packed dirt. He saw a shadowed head lift as the triceratops continued on and felt the brief touch of her mind passing through his like fingers tracing over his palm. Then, she was gone, disappearing into the thickening gray-brown underbrush without a backwards glance.

Duels can provide a powerful effect in your fight scenes, there’s a horde of cultural and fictional tropes associated with them. You want them to be as evenly matched as possible, which is why they should carry the same weapons. However, you need to understand how to use them and the weapons you’ve decided to display. Training isn’t a good catch-all way of saying these two characters are evenly matched, because that’s not what training means. Two similarly equipped characters are on an equal level where they can display their skills, two characters carrying different weapons are going to be at the mercy of the weapon’s advantages. Trained characters know that. They’ll know when they’re at a disadvantage, and plan accordingly.

Two characters fighting with similar weapons with a similar level skill level are evenly matched.

The floor cracked apart into pentagons and two shifted clockwise, while the three others rose to create a staircase revolving in the opposite direction. Each moved a few fractions faster than the others as the lasers fired in triangular patterns across the training room.

Leah ran, blocking, dancing, shifting between the lasers. Her blade became an orange blur, leaving a wheel of fire about her. She leapt between the plates, counting the fractional seconds between shots. Her mind expanding, spreading to encompass the room.

See, Matron Helena’s voice echoed in her head, see everything.

The war droid gave chase, tracking her movements with its internal crystal memory cortex and processor. Assessing her, her habits, her steps, her fighting style and firing in predictive patterns meant to corner and eliminate.

Not simply the machine before you, see the connections, all the connections.

She froze the lasers before they reached her, and sent them glancing off toward the walls. Not long enough to pause, not long enough to appreciate, preen, or question. No room for uncertainty. No, she must be certain. Certain the energies flowing through her would answer commands without question. Must trust her body to answer when she needed it and trust herself to know what she needed to do.

There is a flow in the universe, a universal river bonding all life together.

Leah twisted between the lasers, they came on fast. Onto the ball of her foot, to her heel, swirl and step. Her feet found positions between scorch marks, her body disappearing and reappearing through red slashes. The blasts quickened as she raced counter clockwise across the platforms, chasing the ones moving above her.

Give in to the current, her mother’s voice thundered. Do not think! Do not fight the river! You will only drown. In order to gain control, you must cede to it. Cede your desire to control!

A hiss of steam lingered in her ears. She spun, blade lifting, to catch a downward stroke by the android. Its force pike bore down on her tired arms, bringing the crackling heat of her blade closer and closer to her skin.

There is a part of you which listens.

Leah twisted her blade sideways and leaned back, giving way under the android’s pressure. The staff swept past her. Her figure rippled, there and gone, mind catching three laser blasts and directed them into her attacker.

The android stumbled.

Listen, and let go!

Lunging, she swept her blade through the android’s chest in an orange flash. Plasma shearing into its central cortex and electric processors, she jumped past it onto the next platform. At the brush of her weight on adamantine, the platform began to shift in the opposite direction. Away from those above her, gap and speed widening massively rather than incrementally. Metal rattled underneath her feet, gears whining and humming. Leah grinned, knocking away blasts with her sabre. She ignored the sweat dripping down her forehead, streaking her cheeks and chin, the aching pain in her legs forgotten. The platform circled the hexagonal walls, bumping and hitching at the corners. “So, that’s how you want to play?” she called to the centralized computer. “Let’s go, bolt-bucket!”

Below, the separated android reactivated. A second set of legs sprang from the chassis, and it flipped onto them. The pike broke apart in its hands and became a pair of batons. Out of its separated bottom, four arms extended, two from the waist, and two from the thighs. Each palm glowed with red light, turned upward, and began to fire.

A character fighting against incredibly bad odds and winning? This character is proving their mettle as a badass and they pull dual duty ensuring you see the other tougher characters they battle as real threats. When you respect a character, you respect the characters they respect and their adversaries.

However, it is up to you to convey the physical and emotional stakes to the audience. You can’t expect them to understand, or to assume for you. Physical stakes come from understanding the difference between weapons, by grasping the inherent advantages and disadvantages they pose.

Real combat comes from strategy, rather than technique. Techniques combine to become a tactical strategy. One attack leads to another. You get the sense there’s a plan involved, even when the characters don’t say so. They communicate this plan to the audience through the techniques they use and their behavior. The techniques produce results, and the strain of combat wears on the combatant. Things start going well, and then events change. They get worse. You follow this rising pattern in escalation until we hit victory or defeat.

Fight scenes come with their own miniature narrative arcs, just like every other scene. You utilize everything you know about physical exertion to show the character being worn down, just like you would be in real life and having to draw deep on their inner reserves to break past the next hump. This is what makes sequences like this successful, not the other ancillary nonsense. Buzzwords like “training” and “experience” only work if you understand the logic they connect to. You can say two people are equal, but that doesn’t make it true when comparing context and circumstances. Weapons and martial combat exist to create scenarios which are inherently weighted in one person’s favor, which are unfair, and every individual wants to be the person on the side with the advantage. They are all going to try to ensure the situation falls in their favor, but the circumstances won’t always allow for it. The part where they’re not the same is a large part of what makes these scenes exciting. A weapon face off is to put one character at a significant disadvantage. It is a scene primarily about the weapons and not the people in match up. Where the people come in is their cleverness in using the weapons, the underdog as he or she tries to bridge the gap and the one who is ahead of the game trying to keep their advantage.

You want characters who are actively working out a way to win, rather than passively accepting their statistics and relying on those stats to do the work for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: When You Know Nothing A Martial Arts Manual Can Be Very Confusing

I have a character that’s been trying to learn to fight by reading books. Aside from the fact that it’s a terrible way to learn (she doesn’t really have other options) is there a possibility that someone who was actually trained in the tradition of those same books would recognize what she was *trying* to do? When the character does start getting actual training, how much would her knowledge of theory actually help?

The answer is in that quintessential Yoda line:

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Unlearn what you have learned means throwing away all your preconceptions and starting from scratch. You leave behind what you think you know because the truth is at the beginning of the journey you know nothing. Only when you accept this as a truth will you begin to learn. Otherwise, your preconceived ideas of what the thing is will color your training. Doing this is much more difficult than it sounds. Every person comes to their training with baggage, no one comes in clean. It’s only after those are left behind, when the mind opens, that the training truly begins. In the case of Luke, this means redefining what he knows to be true about the universe itself and what he knows to be possible. Struggling with this idea in the beginning, learning to let go and leave our initial understanding behind is the beginner’s very first struggle.

The limitations are in what we think we know, and that false confidence is the first source danger which must be defeated. False knowledge, half-knowledge lead to misleading confidence, and that confidence is based on a false belief in their own ability. This is a very dangerous position for the individual. Enough knowledge to think you know what you’re doing, to get you into enough trouble that might actually become life threatening, but without the necessary skills to get yourself back out.

In some ways, as a beginner, it is easiest to start raw.  However, a person who truly enters into training carrying nothing with them is rare. Everyone comes with expectations, with bad habits, with misunderstandings of basic terminology, with pride; thinking they’ve mastered the little ideology they’ve had access to.

“What’s in there?”

“Nothing, except that which you bring with you.”

The most dangerous enemy of the beginner is themselves.

The Empire Strikes Back really is a fantastic movie for understanding core concepts of martial arts training. For what its doing, it is actually very realistic.

For your character, the best example from fiction I can pull out is the first training scene from The Mask of Zorro with Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins.  Alejandro pulls out his sword, and Diego uses his to just slap the blade right out of his hand. The scene is played for laughs, but it has merit. Alejandro doesn’t know what he’s doing, he doesn’t even know how to hold the blade properly. The big thing to remember is that he thinks he does. After all, he saw Zorro fight as a kid. Like so many other kids, he practiced with the sword. He carries a sword because that’s what his hero did. His transformation under Diego is complete that Captain Love, who has encountered, fought, and totally defeated him before, takes forever to recognize him.

Your character is starting in the same place as Alejandro, except she has the added bonus of that she thinks she knows what she’s doing. She starts out with a little of that arrogance of someone who has studied the theory and thinks they know, even when they don’t know because they’re missing crucial context and the pieces she was expected to know before she read the document. This is what they don’t tell you about “How To Manuals” and demonstration videos: they’re supplementary. They’re great if you already know what you’re doing, if you’re a student with a teacher and has partners to practice the techniques with. They really suck if you’re starting from scratch. They won’t include basic detail because they’ll assume your training already included the explanation of why.

She’ll have spent at least the first day trying to figure out terminology, and she may never totally figure it out. Tempo or the use of time is a foundational concept in European fencing. Tempo directly relates to when and how the fencer has the opportunity to strike, it only loosely relates to a normal person’s grasp of time. For a fencer, the concept is so basic and ubiquitous that the manual won’t bother to explain, and a student reading the manual will be expected to already know what the manual is discussing.

Trust me, I’ve read lots of manuals written by seasoned professionals. They’re writing for a specific audience, and that audience is not the raw greenhorn.

The book won’t explain all the other little problems either, like vibration and the way that wears down the hand/wrist. How holding a sword at a specific angle for a prolonged period of time quickly wears down the  muscles. They probably won’t explain about the balance points within the blade. The problem is not that the sword is heavy. It’s the motion and stress on the limbs which wears you down. Hold your arm out in front of you, you’ll start feeling the drag of gravity on the arm. The  longer this goes on, the harder it gets.

Missing a practice partner, she’ll never learn about distance and the appropriate striking distances versus the safe distances. With a sword that lack of knowledge could get her killed right out of the gate. Theory is too far ahead of where she needs to be because she’ll skip past the basics. This leads to incredibly obvious flaws.

Alejandro gets the sword slapped right out of his hand. Why? He doesn’t know how to properly hold it, or angle his wrist, or brace his arm against an incoming attack. He’s either too tensed or not tensed enough, he’s not prepared for the hit, and the sword goes flying.

A training manual has just enough information in it to allow you to conceptualize the idea in your head, this will lead you to thinking you know what your doing and feeling confident. Understanding something mentally, however, doesn’t mean you understand it.

Now, once you know what you’re doing, then a training manual becomes extremely helpful. It can get you to think about the material and the techniques in new ways you didn’t consider before, offer up opinions, ideas, and philosophies which are in fact truly wise. The training manual can indeed help you, but only after you’re past the initial hump. So, when she’s an intermediate, what that training manual initially taught her will help. As a raw beginner, it will also trick her into thinking she knows more than she does and she’ll only begin to progress after she accepts this as fact.

My second suggestion is go over to Wikitenaur. You need to familiarize yourself with the special art of the written fencing manuals. “Wikitenaur” is a fantastic website filled with free translations of historical treatises written by the masters of their art. Read some for practice, and see how far you get without needing extra research to understand what it was you just read.

Take this passage from Le Jeu de la Hache (“The Play of the Axe”, MS Français 1996), written by an anonymous Milanese fencing master in 1400 and translated from French by Dr. Sydney Anglo.

[4] When one would give you a swinging blow, right-hander to right-hander. If you have the croix in front, you can step forward with your left foot, receiving his blow, picking it up with the queue of your axe and – in a single movement – bear downward to make his axe fall to the ground. And from there, following up one foot after the other, you can give him a jab with the said queue, running it through the left hand, at the face: either there or wherever seems good to you. Or swing at his head.

Tell me, what does this technique look like? What sort of axe are they using? Great axe? Poleaxe? Hatchet? One handed or two? Which end is the croix? Which end is the queue?

Some manuals have pictures, some don’t. Without pictures, you’re going to be even more at a loss.

I’ll take pity on you. This is about how to use a poleaxe. You’re essentially stepping forward and connecting at the head of the axe, switching directions to drive the blow to the ground and following up by hitting your enemy with the butt of your weapon which is the queue. If you didn’t know that the poleaxe is a polearm and therefore a staff weapon, you might’ve been completely lost. If you don’t know that you use both ends of a staff weapon, often interchangeably, you might still be lost. The end of a poleaxe is, after all, a metal spike.

The book in that second link has pictures and a much better explanation, but that explanation is an explanation of an explanation. Example Two here is unlikely to be the type of training manual that your character has access to, because number two is written from a historian’s perspective with the idea that the poleaxe is no longer a ubiquitous tool of warfare. Example Two is the one both you and your character needs, but that won’t be the one she has access to unless she’s reading a historian’s explanation of the fighting style; which is, again, not what she has.

Sun Tzu is a great example of a book entirely about theory and military philosophy, whose stratagems are so on point they’re still used as the beginner’s guide today. However, a book like this is thin on practical, because this book is written by a general writing to other generals about warfare. In terms of a character learning about generalized practical theory, The Art of War is a much better example than a technical manual. However, strategy won’t teach you how to punch someone.

The Book of the Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. This is a very helpful book, and the five different books cover different aspects of combat from practical to spiritual philosophy. However, when it comes to practical technique, you’re still going to run into the same problems that we ran into with “The Play of the Axe”. These books are written for students who are already practicing the art, and not students who are considering whether or not they’re going to learn.

This is why I get much more out an instructional martial arts video found on YouTube than most of my followers do. I may get confused in places, but I come to it with a foundation which allows me to quickly grasp the concepts at play. This is a just matter of practice. I’ve spent more time with martial arts masters, I know more or less what to look for, and I understand the basics of language they’re using. A martial arts manual is not written for you, the beginner, but for the student. In this sense, the entire concept of a training manual or a “how to” book lies to you. You can ultimately end up more confused than you were than when you started, and, like Renaissance actors  and HEMA practitioners, you’re going to get nowhere without a lot of trial and error.

If this character lacks a training partner to test stuff out with then she never had a chance at trial and error. She only has what she knows in her head, and practiced with her body while under no duress. She has a fighting style filled to the brim with flaws that are just barely recognizable, and I mean they’re recognizable in the way a child trying to perform moves from a Jackie Chan movie looks like Jackie Chan.

So, could they recognize what she’s doing? Maybe. However, European training manuals were mostly created on commission by those with the money to pay for them. The masters themselves tended to be fairly secretive because this training is what they made their living on. The idea of sharing knowledge only helps the enemy. So, in the European set up, your character needs to have a relative who either purchased one of these (exceedingly rare) books or who commissioned one themselves from the master. Or who was a student of the master, or something.

These other characters, if they can tell what she’s doing is a bastardization of what they were taught, are going to be rather confused. They’re more likely to start off offended than feel a sense of kinship, and may transition to kinship but only in the way one feels toward an overeager puppy. Depending on how she behaves, they may view her as a pretender. She’ll need to earn her way in, and if she doesn’t have the coin to pay them for their time then she’s going to need to think of something else.

This is the second secret I’m going to blow, martial arts masters are always paid. Their teaching is a trade, and their skills are in high demand. Their disciples pay them in coin, with a position of prestige, or labor. Or, a combination of all of the above.

So, how is she going to pay for her training? (The standard one if she’s not rich is labor and can’t scrape together the coin to pay, as an apprentice which is a glorified term for an indentured servant.) It’s not just talent, it’s coin. This is a business. You’ve got to pay for the service, especially in the European tradition. Or be the servant of someone who hired the master and is paying for the service.  (Martial arts movies understand this one, but almost no one else does. Understanding this is key to writing a training sequence because physical labor like washing the sheets, cleaning the floors, and carrying water for the cook is a key component of your character’s training.) Begging is not out of the question. So, don’t shy away out of embarrassment or your character’s embarrassment. Embarrassment is actually a key part of the genre, a key part of training, and a key aspect of learning in general. Sometimes, you have to do silly things and get dumped on your ass. You’re going to get dumped on your ass a lot in martial training,  both metaphorically and physically.

A martial arts master is someone whose skills are in high demand, and the onus is on the character to prove why they’re worthy of being trained. Why should this master spend their precious time on them, especially if the master isn’t getting something out of it? The only time this isn’t true is the Chosen One dynamic, where the master is usually the volunteer, but even then the Chosen One has to take their lumps. Remember, your master is a character and not a prop. The same is true for the other characters who might or might not notice her.

-Michi

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